What You Need to Know About Cervical Radiculopathy

Medically Reviewed By Seunggu Han, M.D.
Was this helpful?

Cervical radiculopathy occurs when a nerve in the neck near the spinal cord becomes irritated or compressed. While the condition may go away on its own, treatments, such as medications, physical therapy, and more, can help alleviate the symptoms. This article discusses cervical radiculopathy and its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. It also covers the outlook for people with the condition, risk factors, and potential complications.

What causes cervical radiculopathy?

A person holding their hand to the side of their neck
Jess Craven/Stocksy United

Cervical radiculopathy results from a compressed or irritated nerve in the neck. The cervical spine, the portion of the spine that forms the neck, comprises seven vertebrae with disks between them.

Cervical radiculopathy commonly develops when one of these disks degrades with age or an injury affects the disk. If age causes a disk to settle or collapse, the vertebrae above and below the disk move closer together.

This may cause the formation of bone spurs. These spurs can reduce the amount of space around the vertebrae and pinch the root of one of the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord.

If an injury causes a disk to herniate or bulge, the disk may push against one of the adjacent nerves. Lifting, pulling, or twisting movements can cause a herniated disk.

Whatever the underlying cause, pressure on a nerve results in the symptoms characteristic of cervical radiculopathy.

Learn more about the causes of radiculopathy.

What are the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy?

Cervical radiculopathy symptoms can include:

  • neck pain, usually only on one side, which may extend down the arm on the same side
  • a sensation of “pins and needles” in the hand or fingers
  • numbness
  • shoulder, hand, or arm weakness
  • reduced reflexes

The pain associated with the condition may worsen with neck movement.

How do doctors diagnose cervical radiculopathy?

To diagnose cervical radiculopathy, doctors may begin by asking you about your symptoms and medical history.

They may also have you perform a Spurling test, which involves extending and rotating your head to provoke symptoms. If the resulting pain radiates down the arm on the same side as the neck pain, doctors consider the test to positively indicate radiculopathy.

Imaging tests can also help doctors assess the spine and identify structural irregularities. These tests include:

  • X-rays
  • MRI scans
  • CT scans

If doctors want to rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms, they may perform electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies. EMG evaluates the electrical activity of the muscles. Nerve conduction studies, usually done along with EMG, can help doctors assess nerve function.

What are the treatments for cervical radiculopathy?

For some people, cervical radiculopathy will go away on its own without treatment. For others, medical intervention may be necessary.

Nonsurgical treatments

Treatment for cervical radiculopathy usually begins with nonsurgical therapies. These may include:

  • Medications: Doctors may prescribe oral corticosteroids for a short time to relieve inflammation around the affected nerve. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve), can also help reduce pain.
  • Steroid injections: To reduce inflammation and allow the nerve to heal, doctors may inject steroids near the area where the pain originates.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can recommend exercises to reduce pain, improve your range of motion, and strengthen your neck muscles. In some cases, traction — which involves gently pulling on the head to create more space between the neck vertebrae — may be beneficial.
  • Cervical collar: A soft collar placed around the neck can limit your range of motion and reduce irritation of the affected nerve.

Learn more about exercises to alleviate a pinched nerve in your neck.

Surgical treatments

If less invasive treatment methods are ineffective, surgery may be necessary. The procedure a doctor performs will depend on a few factors, such as the location of the affected nerve and your overall health.

Surgical procedures for cervical radiculopathy commonly include:

  • Posterior cervical laminoforaminotomy: This procedure involves removing the bone or tissues irritating or pressing on the nerve.
  • Anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion: For this procedure, the surgeon will remove the bone spurs or disk pushing on the nerve. They will then fuse the surrounding vertebrae to stabilize the spine.
  • Artificial disk replacement: In some cases, the doctor will remove the entire disk in the affected area and replace it with an artificial disk.

What is the outlook for people with cervical radiculopathy?

The outlook for people with cervical radiculopathy is generally good. According to researchers, more than 85% of acute cases resolve in 2–3 months without specific treatments.

Surgery is a last resort for cases that do not improve with more conservative treatments.

What are some potential complications of cervical radiculopathy?

If cervical radiculopathy persists and surgery is ineffective, some people may experience disability from pain. This can affect how they perform certain functions in their daily activities.

In addition, surgery to address the condition can result in complications, including:

  • injury to the nerves, the sac covering the nerves, or the spinal cord
  • bleeding
  • infection
  • reaction to the anesthetic
  • surgery ineffectiveness

What are the risk factors for cervical radiculopathy?

Cervical radiculopathy may often develop in people experiencing:

  • older adulthood
  • manual labor that involves heavy lifting
  • a history of chronic smoking

Other frequently asked questions

Seunggu Han, M.D., reviewed the answers to these common questions about cervical radiculopathy.

What does cervical radiculopathy pain feel like?

The pain resulting from cervical radiculopathy may be sharp or more of a burning sensation. In addition, the pain may extend down the arm.

How serious is cervical radiculopathy?

Cervical radiculopathy is often a mild condition that resolves without specific treatments. However, it may be more serious for some people, resulting in chronic pain and disability. Getting treatment for your symptoms is the best way to address the pain and prevent complications.

What makes cervical radiculopathy worse?

Certain movements can worsen the symptoms of cervical radiculopathy. Moving the neck or engaging in twisting, pulling, or lifting may increase pain.


Cervical radiculopathy is a pinched nerve in the neck that can cause pain, numbness, or tingling. Some people may find that their symptoms resolve with physical therapy or over-the-counter medications. Others may require surgery to correct it.

Talk with your doctor about ways to manage cervical radiculopathy.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: Seunggu Han, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 24
View All Spine Conditions Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Hwang, M. W., et al. (2020). Cervical radiculopathy: Surgical treatment options. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/cervical-radiculopathy-surgical-treatment-options/
  2. Iyer, S., et al. (2016). Cervical radiculopathy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4958381/
  3. Magnus, W., et al. (2022). Cervical radiculopathy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441828/
  4. Park, D. K., et al. (2020). Cervical radiculopathy (pinched nerve). https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/cervical-radiculopathy-pinched-nerve/
  5. Shanina, E., et al. (2022). Electrodiagnostic evaluation of myopathy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK564383/